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Review of 'Tom's Midnight Garden'

‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ by A Philippa Pearce was on the list of my favourite childhood books. This list also included Rumer Godden’s ‘The Diddakoi’ (about a Romany girl forced to integrate into more mainstream society), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’ (a well-known classic), and ‘Plop, the Owl who was Afraid of the Dark (self-explanatory!). Also, I seem to remember owing multiple versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. So I guess you could say I was an idealist with a very dark side. Nothing much has changed.

I’m sure that many children of the 1970s were introduced to the book via the BBC mini-series, but ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ was first published in 1958 and is frequently described as a children’s fantasy novel.

Owing to his brother’s illness, Tom Long goes to live with an auntie and uncle in a large, grand house which has now been converted into flats. But Tom discovers, when the Victorian clock in the communal hallway strikes 13, that the house returns to its Victorian existence - and that includes the special, large garden.

My favourite part of this book was early on. Oddly, I always enjoy the scene-setting and getting to know characters and places far more than I enjoy the action element of a story. I only enjoy ‘Titanic’ pre-iceberg, and mainly only watch the preamble to most action movies. And that’s reflected in how I’ve felt about this book and its gorgeous descriptions of the garden and the sleeping of the landscapes.

The sheer poetry of this book makes it perfect to read out loud. Consider this:

“There is a time, between night and day, when landscapes sleep. Only the earliest riser sees that hour; or the all-night traveller, letting up the bling of his railway-carriage window, will look out on a rushing landscape of stillness, in which trees and bushes and plants stand immobile and breathless in sleep – wrapped in sleep, as the traveller himself wrapped his body in his great-coat or his rug the night before.

This grey, still hour before morning was the time in which Tom walked into his garden. He had come down the stairs and along the hall to the garden door at midnight; but when he opened that door and stepped out into the garden, the time was much later. All night – moonlit or swathed in darkness - the garden had stayed awake; now, after that night-long vigil, it had dozed off.

The green of the garden was greyed over with dew; indeed, all its colours were gone until the touch of sunrise. The air was still, and the tree-shapes crouched down upon themselves. One bird spoke; and there was a movement when an awkward parcel of feathers dislodged itself from the tall fir-tree at the corner of the lawn, seemed for a second to fall and then at once was swept up and along, outspread, on a wind that never blew, to another, farther tree: an owl. It wore the ruffled, dazed appearance of one who has been up all night.

Tom began to walk round the garden, on tiptoe. At first he took the outermost paths, gravelled and box-edged, intending to map for himself their farthest extent. Then he broke away impatiently on a cross-path. It tunnelled through the gloom of yew-trees arching overhead from one side, and hazel nut stubs from the other: ahead was a grey-green triangle of light where the path much come out into the open again. Underfoot the earth was soft with the humus of last year’s rotted leaves. As he slipped along, like a ghost, Tom noticed, through gaps in the yew-trees on his right, the flick of a lighter colour than the yew: dark-light-dark-light-dark…”

Simple but rich, the story appeals to all ages. Every night, Tom wanders around in the magical Victorian garden. Most creatures and humans in that place are not aware of him, but he eventually manages to find some substance within that world, and eventually becomes friends with one of the only two people who can see him - a young girl named Hatty. Needless to say, the companionship and fun he experiences in the Victorian garden is extremely important to Tom. But though Tom and Hatty become inseparable, she ages at a much faster rate than Tom does. On the night before Tom needs to leave the house and return home to his parents, the garden doesn’t appear. He is very distressed and shouts Hatty’s name, leading to the discovery that Hatty has grown up to become Mrs Bartholomew, the elderly and reclusive landlady of the house.

Though the book is a little old-school in style, to me it hasn’t dated. If I ever have grandchildren, I shall definitely read this book to them. I’ll end this review with the wonderful final paragraph which tells of the meeting between Tom and Mrs Bartholemew/Hatty.

‘Afterwards, Aunt Gwen tried to describe to her husband that second parting between them. ‘He ran up to her, and they hugged each other as if they had known each other for years and years, instead of having met for the first time this morning. There was something else, too, Alan, although I know you’ll say it sounds even more absurd… Of course, Mrs Bartholemew’s such a shrunken little old woman, she’s hardly bigger than Tom, anyway: but, you know, he put his arms right round her and he hugged her good-bye as if she were a little girl.’

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